The two days of April that according to new style calendar was May 9-10 was one of the most crucial and important days for Latvian nation. On April 26-27 the members of Latgalian Latvian political and cultural elite came to a common congress in Rēzekne and decided that the region of Latgale is part of Latvia and Latgalian Latvians are part of Latvian nation living in Kurzeme (Courland), Zemgale (Semigallia) and Vidzeme. This was crucial decision since Latgale region was separated from rest of Latvia by political means for many centuries. After the breakdown of Russian Empire, Latgale then part of Vitebsk province was in danger of becoming part of Russia, Poland or possible Belarusian state. Latgale that was not ethnically homogeneous region had to decide on their own to whom they want to join – united autonomous or independent Latvian state or Russia and Belarus. And large Russian, Polish and Belarusian minority in Latgale also had their say. In the end despite disagreements within their own ranks the leading Latgalian politicians and cultural workers decided to join with rest of Latvia. But, this act was not made without demands and expectations that Latgalians wanted to receive from rest of Latvia. Many of these expectations were not met, many were misunderstood, leading to new strife and disappointment that was present during first independence and appeared again during our time.
Latgalian tribe (latgaļi) as the largest proto-latvian tribe emerged in 5-8 century. Their area of population was nowadays Eastern Latvia along the right bank of river Daugava, stretching into east and south in present day Russia and Belarus. The Medieval chronicles mention Latgalians as ethnic group that had own statehood’s – Jersika, Tālava (Tolova), Atzele, Lotigola ect. that had extended relations with Russian duchies of Polotsk and Pskov who required to pay them tributes and the ruler of Jersika Visvaldis became Orthodox.
The Northern Crusades of 12-13th century placed all nowadays Estonia and Latvia under the Catholic Livonian order rule who was vassal of the Teutonic order. During the era of Livonian Confederation the Latgale region had no political division as the lands were divided between Livonian knights and the Archbishop of Riga. However, the differences in culture and dialect between Western and Eastern Latvians were present as Curonians in the west had their own distinctions and Latgalians had theirs. However, all of them were united into single state and only vassal and senior restrictions prevented them from visiting each other. Medieval Latvians were mostly peasants tied to their land and senior German land owner either from church or the order.
In 15th-16th century Livonian confederation experienced turbulence caused by Reformation, decay of Hanseatic league and threat from Russia. Large part of population became Lutheran, while others opposed. Livonia became a weak state unable to centralize power and in 1558 Russia invaded Livonia starting Livonian war that was joined by Poland-Lithuania, Denmark and Sweden. On 1561 the Northern Estonia with Reval (Tallinn) became part of Sweden while Livonian Order and Archbishop of Riga surrendered to Sigismund II of Poland-Lithuania. The new rulers divided nowadays Latvia and part of Estonia into Duchy of Courland and Semigallia and Duchy of Livonia (Pārdaugava). Riga, Vidzeme and Latgale became part of Duchy of Livonia.
Polish-Lithuanian rule over these lands were short-lived. In 1600 just 17 years after the end of Livonian war a new war broke out between Poland-Lithuania and Sweden. Sweden took over Vidzeme and Riga. Duchy of Courland remained semi-independent while Poland-Lithuania kept only small part of former Livonian duchy. The border between both countries were sent along the river Daugava and Aiviekste in 1621. The treaty made division between Aiviekste river and Swedish controlled region became known as Vidzeme (Middle-Land). The land on the right bank of river Daugava and Aiviekste was now called Inflanty Voivodeship or Livonian Voivodeship. This province set the boundaries for Latgale region.
Inflanty was not a duchy, but as simple province of Poland-Lithuania. That meant that religious freedoms and privileges for the German landlords that existed in Livonian duchy was non-existent. Poland-Lithuania was a Catholic nation and it also wanted to send in Polish and Lithuanian landlords. First step was to return the local populace to Catholic faith. While some of the peasants followed their Lutheran landlords, orders simply diverted back to pagan beliefs in absence of landlord or local church. Jesuit order was established and converted the people back to Catholic faith. Lands were acquired by Polish and Lithuanian landlords who also sent in people from Poland, Lithuania and Belarus. Also the Jews migrated in to Latgale and settled in most towns. Meanwhile because of division in Russian Orthodox church the Old Believers settled and made refuge in Inflanty.
Meanwhile rest of nowadays Latvia was mostly Lutheran, first books in Latvian were published 100 years earlier, despite the Jesuits also teaching in Latvian and publishing books. The peasant conditions are said to be harsher in Inflanty then rest of Latvia. Contacts with rest of Latvia were limited and even contacts within Inflanty was limited because of territorial laws and regulations. In such circumstances Latgalian Latvians made three distinctions – Catholic faith, own special customs and traditional dress and finally the most important the Latgalian dialect with its own regional divisions within Latgale.
In 1772 Russia took over Inflanty and simply joined with Vitebsk province. This did not bring Latgalian unification with rest of Latvians. The rest of Latvia was divided in Courland and Livonian province and was part of special Baltic region that had special rights like abolishing serfdom in 1817-1819, while it was abolished in Latgale in 1861 with rest of Russia. That meant that Latgalians had limited freedom of movement for a very long time, also the Latgalians after the abolish of serfdom as Catholics had limitations to buy land while Orthodox and Lutherans did not. Large part of Latgalians were forced to emigrate to Belarus, Russia and Siberia to get land and often had to convert.
Most crucial was ban on Latin print that was in place from 1865-1904 and multiple russification policies that hit Latgale the hardest because it was simple Russian province. After the ban on Latin was canceled, new Latgalian newspapers appeared, cultural societies emerged and more contacts with rest of Latvia were made. In such circumstances the polonization and russification made crucial advances especially in areas populated by Latvians, Poles, Russians and Belarusians creating identity confusion. A special kind a “nationality” was tuteiši – the local. These people often know more than one of these languages and their own means of identity was their local village and church they belonged to.
New political leaders emerged such as Francis Trasuns, Francis Kemps and Nikodems Raicāns. Francis Kemps made the term – “Latgale” and “Latgalian” (Latgalietis). Francis Trasuns was elected in the first Russian Duma who actively promoted the Latgalian national revival. As Russification faced defeat, new schools teaching mainly in Latvian and Latgalian emerged. On 1915 German army invaded and split the Latvia in two. Daugava served as front line and Latgale still in Russian control faced unforeseeable future. 10-12 thousand Latgalians served Latvian Riflemen regiments, despite not having any regional representation.
This long intro leads in to early 1917. The Tsarist government was brought down. Germans were on the move and the future of Latvia had many possibilities. A national autonomy within Russian Republic, soviet autonomy if the Bolsheviks seize power – or part of German empire.
Two main Latgalian factions had different goals. Francis Kemps who lead the Latgalian Peoples committee was against joining with “baltīšim” or how he called rest of Latvians, with no guarantees for national cultural autonomy to preserve Latgalian cultural and linguistic distinction. Francis Trasuns also wanted to keep the distinctions, but determined that first Latgalians must unite and then ask for guarantees. Other faction was Bolshevik supporters – they were also for uniting with Latvia, but soviet Latvia not bourgeois. The very important Latgalian clergy supported uniting with rest of Latvia so it could be protected from Bolsheviks.
It was important that Latgalians join in common event to proclaim their political intentions to all Latvia and for that the First Latgale Latvian Congress was issued on April 26-27. The congress was held in central city in Latgale – Rēzekne. Congress met resistance from Francis Kemps and Bolsheviks. Kemps and his supporters left the congress while angry mob of Bolshevik supporters gathered around the building where the congress was held and threatened to disrupt the event. The Bolshevik delegates who left the congress called the participants “Latgalian traitors” and called to burn down the building. Angry mob started to throw stones, while defiant Latgalian leader Francis Trasuns declared that he will not leave trough side doors to run, but will come out trough same front doors he entered or will be carried out. A sudden rain shower forced angry crowd to leave and congress went on as expected.
The most crucial result of congress was the declaration that expressed will of joining with provinces of Kurzeme and Vidzeme. That was clear signal for Latvian, German and Russian politicians. The congress also decided to held the elections for Provisional Land Council that was realized and many of its members later joined the Latvian National Provisional Council. On December 3-4 1917 II congress was held that was done after Bolshevik takeover in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) and the vote was made of leaving the Vitebsk Province. 202 Russian and Jewish delegates voted against. However, the Bolshevik government approved the succession from Vitebsk.
On November 18 1920 in Riga the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed and Latgale as third star in Latvian coat of arms was recognized as part of new republic. Then month later the Bolsheviks invaded and took control over Latgale. The Latvian Soviet Government wanted Latgale as part of Soviet Latvia, while Bolsheviks in Vitebsk did not respect the earlier votes and started to make their own power structures loyal to the Belarusian soviet socialist republic. So in February 20-25 in various cities of Latgale the communist party workers congress made vote to join Soviet Latvia.
During the War for Independence Poland, Lithuania and Belarusian People’s Republic all made claims on Latgale. In the end on 1920 Latvian army with Polish assistance took over all Latgale, leaving out only small spots of ethnic Latvian majority. Poland and Lithuania dropped their claims for Latgale, while Belarusian Peoples Republic ceased to exist. Latgale now had common border with Soviet Russia and Belarus that later joined in Soviet Union and Poland.
Latgale was finally joined with Latvia, but the divisions continued to persist. During the creation of the Latvian constitution the Satversme, Latgalian political parties with Trasuns and Kemps demanded to permit national cultural autonomy – self-rule, use of Latgalian language in official documents and state funded education in Latgalian. All of these demands were overturned and fiercely objected by Latvian Social Democrats and Nationalists. Latgalians were allowed to have newspapers in Latgalian, hold lessons in school in Latgalian. But, more autonomy from Riga was not allowed. Latgalian leaders including Trasuns were disappointed and continued political efforts for Latgalian cause until his death in 1926. He even joined with his past rival Kemps. Latgalian nationalists also had conflicts with Russians, Poles and Belarusians who wanted their own cultural autonomy and schools. While minority schools for them were allowed, the Latgalian activists saw this as continued means of polonization and russification. Meanwhile Latvian nationalists saw the Latgalian language and culture as simple backwardness and made efforts to “bring light” to the “dark Latgalian people”.
Cross national and cultural struggle continued and was signified by Kārlis Ulmanis regime, who regarded Latgalian nationalism as danger to his idea of “United Latvia”. However, Latgalian language never lost its prominence in the region. Soviet occupation further made efforts to diminish Latgalian language. At first Soviet Union was the only nation that in its national census made entry “Latgalian”. After WW2 this entry was removed and all Latgalian Latvians were counted as Latvians even if they did not wish so. The Soviet era saw large move of people within Latvia. Latgalians moved to Riga, even Kurzeme and mostly assimilated into local Latvian culture. Also Latvians moved more to Latgale then before. Latgale also became more subjected to Russian and Belarusian immigration with many cities and areas having Russian speaking majority. Before the war the Jews made majority in most Latgalian towns. After holocaust the towns were taken over by Russian speakers. Soviets never fully destroyed Latgalian culture and language and after the independence the Latgalian revival started again.
The second independence brought many of the same issue as during first. While there is no serious talk about Latgalian national autonomy, the efforts of reviving Latgalian language and culture is still important topic. Latgalian historians, cultural workers and folklorists often complain that Latgalian culture is left out of Latvian cultural mainstream and Latvians don’t understand or ignore Latgale. Latgalian municipalities often complain that Riga central government ignores Latgale and leaves it in poverty. While the government is worried about its eastern border especially after the events of 2014.
Latgalian non Latvian speaking population the Poles, Russians and Belarusians always have brought some national political turbulence. During the formation of First Latgale Latvian congress the selection of delegates excluded many non-Latgalian Latvian delegates. Month later Latgale Russian congress was held in Rēzekne and issued clear support for Latgale as part of Vitebsk province. The problematic relations persisted during independence as Poles and Belarusians were accused of separatism. When Latvia regained independence, according to some historians in early 1990’s Russian secret services had plans for Russian people’s republics in Latgale, similar to Moldova. These plans were never realized, but some provocative forces have expressed demands for national autonomy while these demands have not been supported by Latgalian Latvians. After the Crimea crisis in 2014, there have been various provocations in the internet calling for “Latgalian Peoples Republic”. Even the BBC has made provocation making WW3 movie that starts in Latgale taken over by pro-Russian separatists. Latgale has not been Latvian or Latgalian only for many centuries. However, the Russian speaking separatists do not speak on behalf of even all Russian speakers in Latgale, who want to remain in Latvia.
With its political, ethnic and cultural cross points Latgale is point of interest and very important part of Latvia, its culture and history. For 100 years Latvia has been united with Latgale, many efforts are to be made by both sides to be united forever.
Latgales latviešu kongress 1917. Materiālu krājums. Latgales kultūras centra izdevniecība. Rēzeknē 2016.
Zirnis, Egīls. Trešā zvaigznes iedegšana. Sestdiena. 13-20. aprīlis. 2017.